Taxes Aren't The Main Issue

In a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll a whopping 87% of Americans said they didn't believe politicians when they promised to lower taxes.

In surveys people are a little more generous when asked about the promises of specific politicians. People didn't believe George H.W. Bush's campaign promise of "no new taxes," for example, although they told pollsters they thought he would try not to raise them.

Once a president takes office, people give him the benefit of a doubt for a short time. In two questions from early 2001, for example, most people said they expected their taxes to go down under George W. Bush, but by March 2002 in an AP poll a majority, 54%, said they did not expect their taxes to go down at all.

No one likes paying taxes, but for most people the issue isn't generating as much heat as in the past, and the GOP's tax trump card may be less valuable.

The pattern has been the same for Barack Obama in most polls. In a January 2009 Quinnipiac poll, for example, 61% said President Obama would be able to keep his promises not to raise taxes on anyone with an annual family income of less than $250,000. But a September 2009 CBS ( CBS--news--people ) News/New York Times poll found that 56% said the president wouldn't be able to keep that promise.

Similarly, in January 2009 35% told GfK-Roper/Associated Press interviewers that their taxes would go up under the Obama administration and 50% stay about the same. But by January 2010 the numbers had flipped. Fifty-nine percent expected them to go up and only 35% stay the same. Hardly anyone expected them to go down in either year.

Not surprisingly, then, President Obama has lost ground on taxes. In the GfK-Roper/AP poll from April 2009, 54% approved of his handling of taxes. Now 44% do. Other polls show a similar decline.

If the president's support has dropped, are the Republicans doing any better--and does it matter? From 1993 to 2004 in more than 15 questions asked by NBC News/Wall Street Journal pollsters, Republicans ruled on dealing with taxes. But during Bush's second term, when everything went sour, the GOP fell back on taxes and Democrats gained the advantage. But Republicans are clawing their way back. In the March 2010 NBC/WSJ poll they had an 11 percentage point advantage on dealing with taxes: 36% said the GOP would do a better job while a quarter said the Democratic Party would.

The GOP's gain will matter for voters for whom taxes are a top concern, but right now voters are worried about other issues. When the Pew Research Center asked about priorities for the president and Congress, 42% said reducing middle-class taxes should be a top priority. By comparison, 83% said strengthening the nation's economy should be.

Perhaps because Americans don't trust politicians' pie-in-the-sky tax promises, most don't consider taxes a top priority. But there are other reasons federal taxes have less political bite than in the past. People think the personal property tax is now a more onerous tax than the federal income tax. Moreover, fewer Americans pay federal income taxes or have any federal tax liability.

The deficit, usually a sleeper issue, is growing in intensity, which may also make tax cuts seem less urgent. Perhaps surprisingly in Pew's poll, there is bipartisan agreement among Democrats and Republicans on the deficit as a top priority and reducing middle-class taxes as a mid-level one.

A year ago Tea Party protestors used Tax Day to voice their anger at growing government and taxes. A third of respondents in a new Harris poll say they are supporters of the movement, and Gallup puts the number at a close 28%. For Tea Partiers, taxes are a front-burner issue, and their anger could bring them to the polls. No one likes paying taxes, but for most people the issue isn't generating as much heat as in the past, and the GOP's tax trump card may be less valuable. That's the good news for President Obama in an otherwise glum poll picture on taxes.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: White House Photo by Pete Souza

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